Thinking of backpacking around South East Asia but the small details are getting you down? Never fear! Experienced backpacker, Mark, from the travel blog, MyFunkyTravel is here to give you all the grizzly details that you’ll need to plan the perfect trip! From what jabs to get, to how much money you’ll spend and if travel insurance is worth it, this is an essential read…
You don’t want anything to spoil your perfect adventure!
Image credit: This photo was taken on a group trip with Stray Travel Asia.
Getting vaccinations is something you should do at least a month, perhaps even several months before your trip as it takes time for them to kick into effect. In some cases you may need to go back for booster doses so this should be one of the first things you do when getting ready for your travels.
Getting sick in Southeast Asia really isn’t much fun! In most of the region healthcare services fall well short of a decent standard and the few places that provide good healthcare often charge extortionate fees. Therefore take the necessary precautions before you go and head down to your local doctors surgery or health center and tell them where you’re planning on going and for how long.
They should be able to provide you with a list of recommended vaccinations. If the list is ridiculously long then consider talking to a couple of other sources in the health industry and see if it is really necessary to have them all. Opinions do tend to vary even between health professionals about what is absolutely necessary and what is little more than an expensive waste of time. Doctors in some countries are so paranoid about potential lawsuits that they will recommend you get vaccinated against every known disease under the sun!
As a guideline travellers in Southeast Asia are advised to have as a minimum vaccinations against the following diseases:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Diphtheria / Tetanus / Polio (Combined into 1 shot)
You may find that you have already had some of these vaccinations and may still be protected. Certainly If you have visited any developing countries within the past 5-10 years then there is a good chance you will be protected against most of these so check your vaccination records!
In addition you may also be advised to get vaccinated against:
The rabies jab is quite expensive and typically involves three separate doses over the course of 28 days. Most travellers tend to go without this as it doesn’t offer full protection against the disease but does allow you more time to find treatment in the event of a bite.
It is only really worth considering if you are planning to travel to really remote regions or do long jungle treks in somewhere like Borneo where you could potentially be more than 24 hours away from proper healthcare. If you are bitten by an animal on your trip be sure to get it checked out as soon as possible whether you have had the jab or not.
- Japanese Encephalitis
Again, some travellers tend to skip this although if you are planning to spend a lot of time in rural areas (several months) then it would be wise to consider it. For shorter trips to predominantly urban areas and popular travel destinations it’s unlikely you will need to get the Japanese Encephalitis jab.
Malaria is extremely prevalent in almost all of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar and the areas of Thailand that border these countries. There is also a high risk in parts of Southern Vietnam, Borneo and many Indonesian islands (Bali is malaria free). Only Africa has a bigger Malaria problem than Southeast Asia so precautions are important as it is a deadly disease.
The good news is that you don’t have to deal with any more needles, but you will need to get a sizable amount of pills if you’re planning on travelling for several months in the region.
There are many different drugs available although some of them only work effectively in certain parts of Southeast Asia as resistance has built up so you may need more than one prescription. Again, talk to a health professional and tell them about all the areas you may visit and they should be able to suggest the most effective tablets. This is something you should do several weeks before your trip as depending on your prescription you may need to start taking the pills in advance of your arrival in Southeast Asia.
The most common malaria tablets are:
You have to take doxycycline daily starting 1-2 days before you arrive in a malaria-infected region and this must continue for the duration of your stay and for four weeks afterwards. The main advantage is that there is less resistance to the drug.
Similar to doxycycline, you take malarone daily starting 1-2 days before your trip but it only needs to continue for a week afterwards. This is a relatively new drug designed to combat the problem of resistance to mefloquine and chloroquine.
Also known as larium, this is a common prescription for backpackers in Southeast Asia. You take it just once a week starting two and a half weeks before your trip and continuing for four weeks afterwards. The main disadvantage is that resistance has built up in the high risk border areas between Thailand and Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. If you plan on spending much time in those areas it is best to choose an alternative.
Unlike the other three, this can usually be bought in pharmacies. It involves taking the pill once per week starting about ten days before your trip and finishing around four weeks after it. There is a fair bit of chloroquine resistance in the region though so it is likely you will need one of the other drugs too.
All of the drugs can cause some usually mild but occasionally unpleasant side effects. Ask your doctor to talk you through the different options and they should be able to advise you as to what the most effective prescription will be.
Even if you are using tablets or are in low risk areas you should still take normal precautions to prevent mosquito bites and make good use of mosquito nets when staying in rural areas.
Get yourself a mosquito net that you can hang up anywhere!
Money – ATMs and Currency
While each country has its own money, the US Dollar is the main reserve currency in the region and is used even more regularly than the national currency in some parts of Southeast Asia. In popular backpacker destinations in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam it is common to pay in US Dollars for most things and if there is change you might get it in the local currency. If you’re planning on taking cash with you to the region, US Dollars would be a wise choice but it also can be withdrawn from cash machines in most countries. It’s not a good idea to carry thousands of dollars in cash for the duration of your trip and you can usually get reasonable exchange rates at ATM’s (as good or better than the exchange places).
If you travel to more remote areas be sure you have enough cash to last you before you set off as in much of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia ATM’s are far from plentiful and the ones that do exist are unreliable. While you don’t want to be carrying huge wads of cash with you everywhere, if you’re heading into more rural areas (even in the more developed countries) then don’t rely on the fact that there will be a functioning cash machine.
Holding millions of Vietnamese Dong in your hand – you’ll feel rich!
The national currencies are as follows:
- Thailand – baht (THB)
- Cambodia – riel (KHR)
- Laos – kip (pronounced keep) (LAK)
- Vietnam – dong (VND)
- Myanmar – burmese kyat (MMK)
- Malaysia – ringgit (RM)
- Singapore – singapore dollar (S$)
- The Philippines – peso (PHP)
- Indonesia – rupiah (IDR)
* The exchange rate for Myanmar is the official one. A much better deal is available on the black market.
Barring any complete economic meltdown or the discovery of vast quantities of oil in the Gulf of Thailand the rates are unlikely to change too much.
If your currency isn’t featured here then research this before you go. It is a good idea to make a note of the exchange rates for all the currencies in the region as well as the US Dollar. This should take a few minutes of your time and you can keep it in your wallet or stored on your phone during your trip. It’s especially useful when entering new countries at border crossings as those places are often full of guys offering currency exchange at unfavourable rates and looking to make a quick buck off naive newcomers.
Budgeting for a Backpacking Trip in Southeast Asia
People come to Southeast Asia with greatly varying budgets and there is a lot of conflicting information out there about what a realistic budget might be.
The following is designed to give you a rough idea and is based on staying in budget hostels, eating in local restaurants or street stalls and travelling by local buses, trains or boats as opposed to more expensive tourist options. It gives you room for a bit of partying and the odd extra activity like jungle treks or rafting.
Cheap food – (less than a dollar a plate!) – in Malaysia.
However it doesn’t allow for major expenses such as scuba-diving courses or longer expeditions. It does not include flights to or from the region nor does it include pre-trip expenses on things like vaccinations and travel insurance which can be quite costly.
Possible Daily Shoestring Budget (in US Dollars)
- $15/day : Cambodia
- $15-20/day : Vietnam
- $20-25/day : Laos & Thailand
- $25-30/day : Malaysia, Myanmar, The Philippines & Indonesia
- $45/day : Singapore
If you are not a party animal and aren’t planning many extra activities then it is possible to get by on less than this. In big countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, costs vary greatly between the regions so these figures are by no means an exact science. For example in Indonesia the cost of travelling in parts of Java and Bali is perhaps double what it would be in more remote regions. Peninsular Malaysia is almost like a totally different country to Malaysian Borneo which is far more rural and much cheaper.
If you try to cram in a lot and visit many different places in a short time rather than spending longer in fewer destinations this will also push your costs up. If you were to stay in one place for a week or more you could get by on $10 or less per day in many parts of Southeast Asia as hostels and local restaurants are very cheap.
Cheap bungalows like this are all over South East Asia! From 100 baht!
Possible Shoestring Budget for whole Trip
- 1 month – £500, €630, $780
- 2 months – £1000, €1260, $1560
- 3 months – £1500, €1890, $2340
- 4 months – £2000, €2520, $3120
- 5 months – £2500, €3150, $3900
- 6 months – £3000, €3780, $4680
In addition to this you may want to allow for perhaps another £1000 ($1500-1600) for a return flight to the region, travel insurance and vaccinations. Obviously this figure depends on where you live and what kind of deals you can get on flights, travel insurance and the cost of inoculations in your country.
Every trip is different but real shoestring travellers should be able to keep within this budget. If you stay just in mainland Southeast Asia it may be that you can get by on less. However If you want to visit all the countries in the region then your costs will be more as you will have to fork out for several connecting flights.
Some budget travellers have managed to explore Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in 4 months for as little as $1500. Others who get sucked in to the party culture or prefer to do lots of adventurous activities easily manage to spend double these figures. If it’s your first backpacking trip it would be wise to factor in a little more as finding the best budget options is something of an acquired skill and you are likely to make the odd expensive mistake along the way.
It’s very tempting for a backpacker who has saved up every penny for a round the world trip to overlook travel insurance. I mean who wants to pay out a chunk of money at the start of your trip, just incase something goes wrong? I’ve learnt this lesson the hard way and believe me – you are much better off being prepared in the unlucky event that something goes wrong during your travels.
Travel insurance can protect you from forking out expensive medical bills (you’ll definitely want to be in the best hospital you can if you get ill in South East Asia!), then there’s theft of valuables such as camera, laptop, loss of passport etc… If you purchase the right travel insurance in advance of your trip, you shouldn’t have a problem claiming things back online – and you’ll end up saving yourself a lot of money in the long run! South East Asia Backpacker Mag recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance as the best insurance for backpackers. It has policies to cover adventure sports, theft of laptops and cameras… and it’s also flexible – so you can extend your cover easily online – if your trip ends up lasting a lot longer than planned! Get a quick quote on this page here.
About the writer:
Mark is a keen traveller and has explored South East Asia extensively. He writes about his adventures on MyFunkyTravel and has just released a Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia which is available as an e-book on Amazon and on Google Play as an android app.